How to apply colour theory when designing your brand

Creating a presence requires top-notch branding and typography, but colour also plays a big part in how people perceive your business. All colours have a deeper meaning – and knowing about each and every single one can help your business perform its very best. Of course everyone has their own perceptions on what each colour means to them, but there are some universal rules about colour that we can apply to our branding and design.

So that’s what we’ll be delving deeper into in this blog post. We’ll cover colour theory and the meanings behind colours. After you’ve read through, you should understand how to build strong and consistent branding through the correct colour choices. 

Why is colour important?

Surely, whether something’s green or red doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things, right? Well, we’re here to tell you that it actually does matter! Colour can affect the meaning of text, user navigation, and even emotions, to an extent. A study in which people drank orange juice made different colours with food colourings revealed that even the slightest hue variations affected the flavour described by participants. Of course the juice tasted exactly the same, but when the juice had green colour added to it, it was reported as tasting more sour.

By first understanding the principles of design – which cover all elements of design, not just colour – a company can create a hugely impactful brand. 

The right colour choice can highlight specific sections of your website and allow visitors to find their way directly to key areas. This makes any call-to-action much more effective, as well as improving your marketing efforts.

rainbow wooden planks

Primary colours

You may know that in art theory, the primary colours are red, blue and yellow, which are used to make all other colours, but when we talk about primary colours in branding, we mean the main colour used by a brand.

“Consumers associate certain brands with certain colors, such as Marlboro with

red, Guinness with black, and Cadbury with purple (Grimes and Doole, 1998).”

They are consistently used in all brand communications – graphics, signage and everything in between! They rarely change, except for in the instance of a major rebrand (link) as they are central to the identity of a brand.

Can you tell what our primary colour is? It’s important to choose a colour and stick to it – if you make a drastic change to your primary colour and suddenly switch up from green to red, your audience may be confused. Think of Cadbury’s – their iconic purple is more than just a cool colour – it becomes an identifying feature for their brand, and if strongly communicated, can even form subliminal messaging! I fancy chocolate now…

Secondary colours

Secondary colours often refer to colours mixed from the primaries, e.g. orange, green and purple, but what we mean here are the colours that are secondary in your branding, and are used alongside your primary colours.

These can rely more on what’s trending at the time, and change more frequently than primary colours, often depending on seasons or marketing strategies. Secondary colours compliment a company’s branding colours, although they are used scarcely in branding – primary colours pull most of the weight in terms of brand recognition!

A good example is Festico, a drinks company. The primary colour is #F68075 with a gradient to #F2545F as seen below, and is paired with the secondary colours of #71B544 green. 

Festico Drinks Co
festico drinks colour palette

 As you can see, this is a drinks company with flavours like ‘sour apple’ and ‘tropical’ so the colours are chosen specifically to invoke freshness, tartness, and a strong fruity taste. The colours are bold so the viewer subconsciously expects a bold flavour. When a drink is in a can, the colour of the actual beverage is not usually seen, so the colours and design of the can invokes a strong expectation which affects the taste, as described in the orange juice study above.

The colour wheel

the colour wheel

The colour wheel is a circular graph that contains each primary, secondary and tertiary colour, as well as their respective hues, tints, tones and shades.

  • A hue is a colour in its purest form
  • A tint is a colour’s hue mixed with white
  • A tone is a colour’s hue mixed with grey
  • A shade is a colour’s hue mixed with black

You can use colour wheels to pick your brand palette – go for colours near to each other on the wheel for an analogous colour palette, or colours opposite each other for complementary colours. Adobe and Canva do have colour wheel tools that make this easy – check out our list of helpful tools!

Additive and Subtractive Colour Theory

CMYK – or cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black), is the subtractive colour model. You have to subtract colours in order to get white, and the more colours you overlap, the closer you get to black. CMYK colours are used when designing printed materials, as they will be more ‘true’ when printed. 

RGB, or red, green and blue, is the additive model of light waves. As more colours are added and overlapped, the closer you get to white. This is most commonly used for digital images or web design as many web programs will use RBG values or a HEX code, which is assigned to colours for CSS and HTML.

coloured pencils

Psychological meanings of colour

As well as differing amounts of visual strength, colours also carry different symbolism for emotions.

Red is typically associated with passion and can help encourage action on your site. However, it can also symbolise danger, and is used to convey urgency, such as time-limited deals or calls to action.

Orange has connotations of excitement and warmth. However, it’s also strongly associated with the construction industry, as well as the season of autumn, making it versatile. Many companies make it their dominant colour, to show their vibrancy and energy.

Yellow has ties with happiness, and even intellect, but has been overused in recent times. It’s a bright, eye-catching colour that works well as an accentuating feature with darker colours. 

Green is often connected to growth and sustainability, as well as being the colour of wealth and more imaginatively, envy. It’s a buoyant, bright colour and has many different shades which can have different effects on a brand.

Blue is also a shade-dependent colour, and can convey tranquillity or confidence. Usually, lighter shades provide a sense of peace whereas darker shades are more bold. 

Purple is a colour that can signal luxury or creativity, especially when used deliberately. Just a smidge here and there, accented with gold, will convey your brand as la creme de la creme.

Black is a very popular colour with brands, used to connote power and mystery, as well as clean lines when used as an outline colour. It is very helpful for streamlining a site, and when on a brighter background (or even as the background for a brighter colour) it can prominently display key aspects.

White conveys safety and innocence, and is a good way of creating that necessary negative space you need for a clean look.

Colour me surprised!

Alright! We’ve covered some of the more emotional meanings behind colours, as well as why you might want to take advantage of these in your branding. Additionally, we have whizzed through colour mixing, including tints, tones and shades – hopefully, you’ll be able to pick colours like a pro!

See our blog 5 Simple Tools To Help You Design Colour Palettes for more info and some great tools that will help you create your own colour palette.